Who was behind the legendary Tupperware empire? Was it Earl Tupper who invented the plastic to make the product or was it single mother Brownie Wise who revolutionised the sales and marketing of the product?
Life of the Party is an intriguing read about a trailblazing woman who changed the landscape of shopping in America, who was ahead of her time in so many ways and yet was ultimately betrayed by the business she helped to build.
It’s post-war America, a time when we imagine the majority of women at home in the kitchen, with the husband out at work and home at five. But for many women, their confidence boosted by their efforts in the workforce during the war, that simply wasn’t enough.
Brownie Wise was a single mother to a young son who had broken up from her drunken abusive and husband. Like many women in her position work wasn’t a choice – she needed to work and she was brilliant at what she did. But no matter how good she was, she was told that management wasn’t a place for women so there was only so far she could go.
Until she found Tupperware. Anyone growing up in the 70s (and earlier) will remember those pastel coloured bowls and containers that kept our food lasting longer. An inventor and entrepreneur, Earl Tupper created these innovative new ways to store food from an ugly plastic byproduct of the war machine. And it was Brownie Wise who recognised that the best way to sell these products was via home selling.
And so came about the now famous Tupperware party, with Brownie Wise proving to be one of the best saleswomen and managers of a nationwide sales force comprising many housewives. Wise motivated and educated these sales teams and she quickly climbed the ranks of Tupperware management.
She knew that selling Tupperware by word of mouth recommendation and fun parties was far more effective than having it displayed on department stores shelves collecting dust. She was responsible for many of the parties’ features, still around today, including the legendary trick of throwing a sealed Tupperware bowl containing liquid across the room (pictured).
Wise was at the forefront business management that we take for granted today – public relations, team building, staff motivation via newsletters, prizes, holidays and conferences. She became a legend throughout the company and throughout America – she was the first woman to feature on the cover of Business Week magazine, multiple articles about her appeared in top women’s magazines and she even penned a book (not unusual for a businesswoman today, but unheard of back then.)
But despite the heady success, something changed. Did she get ahead of herself? Or was it finally too much for Earl Tupper to have a woman basking in the limelight and taking all the credit for the runaway success of the Tupperware business? Why was Wise, who did so much for Tupper’s company, written out of Tupperware corporate history and why did she leave the company with nothing?
Life of the Party is a compelling story of a woman in a man’s world, her path to phenomenal success despite many obstacles, how she provided many ordinary women with the opportunity to find success outside of the home, and the poignant personal story of her ultimate undoing in a company she had helped steer to dizzying success.
Canadian journalist Bob Kealing interviewed many people who had been around at this time – Brownie Wise’s son Jerry talked extensively to Kealing, as did many who were there at the start, including the businessman Gary McDonald, who Wise had taken under her wing in the early days and who was still at Tupperware when Wise left the company. In addition, Kealing has extensively researched writings of the main players, Wise and Tupper. The result is a well-rounded and thoroughly researched account that kept us engaged from start to finish – and one that restores Wise to her rightful place in Tupperware history.